This abomination — a proposal for a “UK National Licence” for open-access papers, making them available only in the UK, is not an April Fool joke. It’s a serious proposal, put forward by HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, which styles itself “the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education” (though I note without comment that they routinely partner with Elsevier).

It’s desperately disappointing that British academics should propose something as small-minded and xenophobic as this, which I can only refer to as the UKIP Licence.  Let’s start counting some of the ways this is a terrible, terrible idea.

1. It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first coined the term, describes OA as “free availability on the public internet” (i.e. not a subnet), “permitting any users” (i.e. not just British users) “without financial, legal, or technical barriers” (i.e. no filtering on IP addresses).

2. It positions the UK as the one country in the world willing to poison the open-access well, prepared to destroy value for 199 countries in the hope of increasing it for one. This makes it a classic prisoner’s-dilemma “defect” strategy — an approach which has been shown by multi-algorithm tournaments to reliably downgrade the defector’s outcome.

3. British people gain more when 200 countries are working on advances in health, education, etc., than when only one is. This tiny-minded licence, if adopted, would hobble British innovation, health and education, as well as that of the rest of the world.

4. Most important, it’s mean. We have to be better than this. Publishing research about diseases that kill millions in third-world countries, then preventing scientists in those countries from reading that research is not just stupid, it’s despicable. It’s hard to imagine behaviour more unrepresentative of the values that we like to imagine the UK embodies.

Oh, and 5. it won’t work, of course. Barring access by IP address is a notoriously flawed approach, which hides content from Brits abroad while allowing access to anyone anywhere who knows how to use a Web proxy.

Putting it all together, this is about the most misguided proposal imaginable. I would like to see its authors, both of them senior at UCL, withdraw it with all possible haste, and with an appropriate apology.

[I would have left this comment on HEPI’s blog-post announcing their proposal,  but comments are turned off — perhaps not surprisingly. I did leave a version of it on the Times Higher Education article about this.]

Update the next day: see also David Kernohan’s post A local licence for Henbury.

Update 9th April: this post, lightly modified, is published as a letter in today’s Times Higher Education. More importantly, you should all go and read Stephen Curry’s much more dispassionate, but equally critical, analysis of the National Licence proposal.

I had an email out of the blue this morning, from someone I’d not previously corresponded with, asking me an important question about PeerJ. I thought it was worth sharing the question, and its answer, more generally. So here it is.

Do you have any insight into the PeerJ business model? When I try to persuade people to publish in PeerJ, a very common response is that the journal can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.

And indeed PeerJ’s financial model does seem too good to be true: rather than charging an APC of $1350 (as PLOS ONE does) or $3000 (as the legacy publishers do for their not-really-open hybrid articles), PeerJ charges just $99 per author — which buys not just the right to publish one article, but one per year for life. (Or you can pay $300 for the right to publish any number of papers forever.)

PeerJ is a privately owned company and does not disclose its internal financial details. Since I have no connection with PeerJ (other than being a very satisfied customer), I know nothing of the financials.

But here is what we do know.

1. PeerJ is run by Pete Binfield, who has more experience of running open-access megajournals than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked his own livelihood on it.

2. The principal outside investor in PeerJ is Tim O’Reilly, who has more experience of making money from free-to-read content than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked a seven-figure sum on it.

3. Most importantly, the content in PeerJ is safe forever, because it’s fully, properly, BOAI-compliant open access, licenced using CC By, and archived at PubMed Central. So even if the worst happened, if PeerJ went bankrupt, everything published in it would live on.

4. Since CC-By documents cannot be re-enclosed if their publisher is acquired, even if PeerJ were acquired by a predatory barrier-based publisher such as Elsevier, the articles would remain safe.

5. We have got into the habit of paying far too much for publishing. On average paywalled papers cost the world more than $5000 each. Legacy publishers typically charge APCs of $3000 or so. Yet born-digital publishers such as Ubiquity Press need charge only $500, and show the breakdown of that cost. (And note that $80 of that is set aside to cover waivered articles for which no fee is paid.) Against that analysis, PeerJ’s fees don’t look crazy. The truth is that, as well as their 35% profit-margins, legacy publishers’ costs are sky-high because they are dragging around the carcass of print-based publishing.

6. Numerous universities are confident enough of the PeerJ model that they have signed up for institutional plans. You know, little universities like Cambridge, UCL and Bristol (UK), and Harvard, MIT and Cornell (USA).

Putting it all together, we see that the PeerJ financial model is roughly in alignment with other new-model publishers, that the details are persuasive enough to convince the world-leading experts who know about them, that the open-access papers published in PeerJ will be freely available to the world forever, whatever happens — which is more than we can say for articles “published” behind paywalls, and that the world’s leading universities are on board.

In short, there is no rational reason not to publish in PeerJ (unless you’re statistically illiterate enough to think that its lack of an impact factor is of any scientific significance).

Just launched: a new open-access journal of vertebrate paleontology, brought to you by the University of Alberta, Canada! It’s called VAMP (Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology), and it charges no APC. Here’s a illustration from one of the two articles in its first issue.

Holmes (2104:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

Holmes (2014:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

VAMP uses the canonical open-access licence, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC By), which means it fulfils both the letter and the spirit of the Budapest Open Access Initiative’s definition of OA.

It’s great that we in vertebrate palaeontology can add this journal to the roster of OA journals in our field, already including Palaeontologia Electronica, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, The Fossil Record and others. (Plus of course there is lots of vertebrate palaeontology in PLOS ONE and PeerJ.) I think that as a field, we are ahead of the curve in making the transition towards an all-OA literature.

 

*yawn*

Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).

Figure 4. Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Figure 4: Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)

The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:

28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication

TOTAL 49 days

Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.

At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!

Screenshot from 2014-12-23 10:39:34

 

A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.

Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!

I wrote last week that I can’t support Nature’s new broken-access initiative for two reasons: practically, I can’t rely on it; and philosophically I can’t abide work being done to reduce utility.

More recently I read a post on Nature’s blog: Content sharing is *not* open access and why NPG is committed to both. It’s well worth reading: concise, clear and helpful. The key point they make is that “This is not a step back from open access or an attempt to undermine it. We see content sharing as an additional offering to open access, not instead of it”. But do read the article, as it provides useful background on NPG’s moves towards open access.

So NPG do look pretty much like the good guys here. They are not taking anything away; they are adding a thing that no-one is obliged to use; and they are carefully not claiming that this thing is something it’s not. What’s not to like? Surely at worst this has to have net zero value, yes?

Well, no.

The first thing is that for me the value is not more than zero, because articles that might evaporate at any moment are simply not of value to me as a researcher. If I am going to cite them, I need to have permanent copies, so I can check back on what I meant.

All right — but doesn’t that leave the value at last no less than zero?

Well, it depends. When I wrote last year about the travesty that is “walk-in access” — the ridiculous idea that you can physically go to a special magic building to use their anointed computers to read documents your own computer is perfectly capable of reading — I speculated:

I can only assume that was always the intention of the barrier-based publishers on the Finch committee that came up with this initiative: to deliver a stillborn access initiative that they can point to and say “See, no-one wants open access”.

It’s easy to imagine barrier-based publishers making the same point when take-up of NPG’s broken access is low. That’s one possible bad outcome that would make the broken-access offer a net negative.

Another, much more serious, one would the fragmentation of the literature into multiple mutually incompatible subsets. In this dystopia, you’d have to read NPG papers on ReadCube, Elsevier papers using Mendeley, and so on. As Peter Murray-Rust noted:

Maybe we’ll shortly return to the browser-wars “this paper only viewable on Read-Cube”. If readers are brainwashed into compliance by technology restrictions our future is grim.

Say what you want about PDFs — and there is plenty to dislike about them — the format is at least defined by an open standard: anyone can write software to read and display it, and lots of different groups have created implementations. The idea of papers that can only be read by a specific program (almost certainly a proprietary one) is a horrifyingly retrograde one.

And here’s a third possible bad consequence. ReadCube is one of those applications that “phones home” — it tracks what you read. NPG say that this data is anonymised, but the opportunities for abuse are obvious. Suppose you look up a lot of papers about cancer and find that your health insurance premiums have gone up. You read papers about communist theory, and can’t get a place at the university you thought was keen to take you. Right now, this isn’t happening (so NPG assure us) but history does not give us reason to be optimistic about corporations owning big databases about user behaviour.

So the outcomes of NPG’s kind offer, intentionally or not, could include anti-OA propaganda based on poor update, fragmentation of the literature into technically incompatible subsets, and violation of researcher privacy.

Not a pretty prospect.

But here’s why I feel even worse about this: pointing it out feels like throwing a generous offer back in the faces of the people who made it. When I read Timo Hannay’s visionary exposition of what broken access is meant to achieve, and Steven Inchcoombe and Grace Baynes clear explanation of what it is and isn’t, I see good people honestly trying to do good work, and I hate to be so negative about it.

So my heartfelt apologies to Timo, Steven and Grace; but I gotta call ’em like I see ’em, and to me broken access looks like an offer with very low value, and carrying several significant threats.

What I would really like to see from NPG — an unequivocal good that I could celebrate unreservedly — would be for them to make all their articles properly open access (CC By) after one year. That would be a genuine and valuable contribution to the progress of research.

Life restoration of Aquilops by Brian Engh. Farke et al. (2014: fig. 6C). CC-BY.

Life restoration of Aquilops by Brian Engh. Farke et al. (2014: fig. 6C). CC-BY.

Today sees the description of Aquilops americanus (“American eagle face”), a new basal neoceratopsian from the Cloverly Formation of Montana, by Andy Farke, Rich Cifelli, Des Maxwell, and myself, with life restorations by Brian Engh. The paper, which has just been published in PLOS ONE, is open access, so you can download it, read it, share it, repost it, remix it, and in general do any of the vast scope of activities allowed under a CC-BY license, as long as we’re credited. Here’s the link – have fun.

Obviously ceratopsians are much more Andy’s bailiwick than mine, and you should go read his intro post here. In fact, you may well be wondering what the heck a guy who normally works on huge sauropod vertebrae is doing on a paper about a tiny ceratopsian skull. The short, short version is that I’m here because I know people.

OMNH 34557, the holotype of Aquilops

OMNH 34557, the holotype of Aquilops

The slightly longer version is that OMNH 34557, the holotype partial skull of Aquilops, was discovered by Scott Madsen back in 1999, on one of the joint Cloverly expeditions that Rich and Des had going on at the time (update: read Scott’s account of the discovery here). That the OMNH had gotten a good ceratopsian skull out of Cloverly has been one of the worst-kept secrets in paleo. But for various complicated reasons, it was still unpublished when I got to Claremont in 2008. Meanwhile, Andy Farke was starting to really rock out on ceratopsians at around that time.

For the record, the light bulb did not immediately go off over my head. In fact, it took a little over a year for me to realize, “Hey, I know two people with a ceratopsian that needs describing, and I also know someone who would really like to head that up. I should put these folks together.” So I proposed it to Rich, Des, and Andy in the spring of 2010, and here we are. My role on the paper was basically social glue and go-fer. And I drew the skull reconstruction – more on that in the next post.

One of the world's smallest ceratopsians meets one of the largest: the reconstructed skull of Aquilops with Rich Cifelli and Pentaceratops for scale.

One of the world’s smallest ceratopsians meets one of the largest: the reconstructed skull of Aquilops with Rich Cifelli and Pentaceratops for scale. Copyright Leah Vanderburg, courtesy of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Anyway, it’s not my meager contribution that you should care about. I am fairly certain that, just as Brontomerus coasted to global fame on the strength of Paco Gasco’s dynamite life restoration, whatever attention Aquilops gets will be due in large part to Brian Engh’s detailed and thoughtful work in bringing it to life – Brian has a nice post about that here. I am very happy to report that the three pieces Brian did for us – the fleshed-out head that appears at the top of this post and as Figure 6C in the paper, the Cloverly environment scene with the marauding Gobiconodon, and the sketch of the woman holding an Aquilops – are also available to world under the CC-BY license. So have fun with those, too.

Finally, I need to thank a couple of people. Steve Henriksen, our Vice President for Research here at Western University of Health Sciences, provided funds to commission the art from Brian. And Gary Wisser in our scientific visualization center used his sweet optical scanner to generate the hi-res 3D model of the skull. That model is also freely available online, as supplementary information with the paper. So if you have access to a 3D printer, you can print your own Aquilops – for research, for teaching, or just for fun.

Cloverly environment with Aquilops and Gobiconodon, by Brian Engh (CC-BY).

Cloverly environment with Aquilops and Gobiconodon, by Brian Engh (CC-BY).

Next time: Aquilöps gets röck döts.

Reference

Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 516 other followers